The Amazon River is the stuff of legends, and we were excited to have a chance to experience a bit of it while we were in South America. In the Atacama Desert we experienced one of the driest environments on Earth: thousands of square miles virtually devoid of life. In a startling contrast, the Amazon has to be one of the most varied and densely packed biosystems on the planet.
We started researching options to visit there soon after entering Peru, and even considered an Amazon trip while we were in Ecuador a month later. It can be challenging to get to the Amazon basin from the population centers of Peru and Ecuador, which is both a blessing and a curse. There are few roads and fewer airports, though there are an increasing number of eco-resorts, some of them quite luxurious, and most quite pricey. Since we were traveling on the cheap, we continued to look for other options. 🙂 We decided to try to arrange a tour guide from a small town in northern Peru (rather than pre-booking), and spent the better part of a week getting there.
We had been communicating with our German friends whom we had met in Colca Canyon, Alex & Maria, and it turned out that their trajectory was almost identical to ours. We ended up in Yurimaguas within 36 hours of each other. We had each done some research into local tour options, and came to an agreement over lunch at a great deli that even had Black Forest cake for dessert! We booked our tour together that afternoon and the next day hopped on a “fast boat” down the Huallaga River (pronounced something like “wa-YA-ga”) to the smaller town of Lagunas, on the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The fast boats are covered boats perhaps 80 feet long, but only about 8 feet wide. They are set up similar to an airplane, with maybe 30 rows of seats, 2 on each side (at the widest). We left just before dawn and traveled about 60 km as the crow flies, but with the twists and turns of the river it took roughly 5 hours. When we arrived, we noticed that the town’s waterfront was flooded (a good indication of the water levels that awaited us), and we had to hop from one rock or shaky board to the next for 25 yards, to get far enough up the main road to reach dry ground. There we met up with one of our tour guides. He took us to our hostel for the night and told us where to meet in the morning.
We had dinner at a family restaurant a few blocks away that had a couple of monkeys for pets. The littlest one (that they called Pancho), had a 4′ harness which kept him leashed to a small shelf that was his home. He was very active and playful, and kept moving from the shelf to the nearby door frame to another space in the next room and back again. Sometimes he would climb up on one of our shoulders and enjoy a bite or two of bread from our lunch. Although we were enamored with Pancho, we were also saddened by his limited circumstances. After dinner we took a stroll around the town – and found that there really wasn’t much town to stroll! There is one main paved road, with a dozen short crossroads that might have been paved once but are clearly not maintained. 🙂 The locals live in very simple houses and get around by walking or taking a motorcycle taxi. We were surprised to learn that the town’s power is supplied by diesel generator, and is only on for a few hours in the morning and a few more at night. It seemed like there should be a better way to generate power from the river, but we were visiting during the rainy season, when the river was in flood, and there is far less water during the dry half of the year.
Although we’d booked a tour for four of us, there were actually six of us, because another American couple, Leslie & Matt, started at the same time as us. They had booked a 7 day excursion and we had booked 6, though, so we traveled together until the halfway point. Our guides met us at the hostel along with two moto-taxis which were loaded to the brim with gear. We traveled maybe 45 minutes over a very bumpy dirt road and then stopped at a beautiful grassy property along a small river with a ramp and dock that we used to load all the gear into three hand-made dugout canoes. Matt & Leslie had their own canoe and two guides, we had a canoe with one guide (Rainer), and Marie & Alex had a larger boat with two guides and most of our gear and provisions. Each canoe had an extra paddle, and one guest in each boat was usually paddling along with the guide(s) – although the guides all insisted that it was unnecessary.
From the moment we entered the dugouts we entered an strange scene in which the river was indistiguishable from the land. There was water everywhere and the dense verdant jungle rose out of it teeming with life. Frequently our guide would steer us directly into the jungle into an almost imperceptable gap in the trees and we would be surrounded by the jungle only to emerge minutes later into an area where the blue sky was again visible. In drier times this must have been a river.
The first day we traveled downstream on a small river which was moving rapidly, so we barely had to paddle. (Isn’t there an old adage, “What goes down must come up” or some such?). There were many twists and turns and it was impossible to get a good sense of what direction we’d traveled or how far. At some point we joined up with a larger river, perhaps 30 feet across, called the Marañon (which means “cashew”) which moved a bit slower. We were on the water nearly all day, with only one break for lunch. The river was brown and murky with dirt picked up along the way, but it was clean enough that the guides used the water for cooking and washing. Most of the time we had trees overhead.
We saw lots of birds, including parrots and macaws, eagles and ospreys, egrets and storks, and lots and lots of song-birds. For Kathy, the big sighting of the first day was the plethora of blue-and-yellow macaws flying overhead in small flocks and perched noisily high up in the trees. Our guide, Rainer, who grew up in that jungle, pointed out a group of small bats sleeping underneath some bare branches over the water, by shooing them away in a cloud. Lunch was held in a lodge on stilts over the water. During the dry season it would be high and dry, but for us almost all of our stops involved getting out of the canoe onto a set of stairs rather than stepping onto ground. The meals were simple fare, but plenty of it. Most days one or another of the guides would go fishing in the evenings, and although they caught a variety of (mostly unfamiliar) fish, we were most intrigued at the idea of eating piranha! There are a number of varieties of piranha, but our favorite, the red piranha, was about 9″ long and had a tomato-red patch on its belly. The teeth are incredibly sharp! Piranha have such a fearsome reputation from the movies that we were all a bit nervous at the thought of swimming in the same river where they were caught, but the guides did so we all joined in each day at our midday and evening stops. It was so refreshing! We only saw a few fish while we were swimming, and never a piranha, but when the table scraps were thrown into the river after a meal the water would almost immediately roil with activity.
We slept in a different place each night, but always in a building with space for sleeping pads and mosquito nets. Sometimes there were raised bed-frames, sometimes not; sometimes there were room dividers, sometimes not; usually there were other parties in the same building. It was fun to see other parties at our stops along the way, but the meals were always prepared by one’s own guides without much sharing between groups. The guides personally pay for all of the provisions and equipment, and get paid a flat fee for their services. I think the tour agencies make a good bit on these tours, and for the guides it’s a good job but they’re definitely not getting rich! The guides would typically socialize amongst themselves in the evenings, rather than mixing with the guests (we were told that some guests would be horrified to have the guides eat at the same table with them!). The guides are often a couple, as was the case in our two-guide boat. They complete some coursework in tourism and the environment, and have to spend a year as an apprentice. They have to provide the bedding, the pots and pans and plates and silverware, and often even the canoe. But they get to meet people from all around the world, develop a deep knowledge of this ecosystem and its inhabitants, and spend the majority of their time doing what they love. None of them spoke (much) English.
We saw lots of wildlife on this trip, some of it fairly close-up, but also some of it waaay off in the tops of the trees (like the sloths, who are solitary and reclusive) and some “drive-by” sightings where you mostly just get a sense that something moved by quickly. Nature television has spoiled us! 🙂 According to Rainer, there are six kinds of monkeys in this area, and we saw five of them. At the time we knew all of the names, but I’m sorry to report that those names have slipped away when no one was watching. Our presence tended to spook the monkeys and they would generally move deeper into the jungle when they saw us. Photography is a real challenge! We saw dozens if not hundreds of monkeys swinging through the trees and leaping from one branch to another. We have little photographic evidence, however. One of the largest of the species is the howler monkeys, which we’ve seen in a couple of locations in Central America, but I’m not certain they are the exact same species. Here they are called “monos rojos”, which just means “red monkeys”. We enjoyed their surreal sounds at dusk and dawn every night, surging like a big wind in the canopy, and during the daytime we heard territorial “conversations” between troops of howlers. We never tired of these guys. There’s a kind of lizard with a red head that lives in this area that can skitter across the water using its tail, moving at an unbelievable speed. We saw 2 or 3 of these, but it’s one of those shooting star experiences where as soon as you notice it, it’s over.
The third day out, we took a side-trip to a magical place that had a unique plant, a huge lily-pad roughly 10 feet in diameter. It had thorns on its perimeter that were very sharp, and new leaves that hadn’t yet rolled out were like a porcupine! They are found nowhere else on the planet. The area they were in was very still, and the waters offered beautiful reflection images. The place had the air of being in a sacred space, a cathedral, a scene directly out of the Jurassic lost in time, and it was easy to imagine that we were the first people to ever be there and a Tyranosaurus might appear any moment. In this same area we had several very brief encounters with the pink Amazonian freshwater dolphin. We never got a good look, but we got the sense that they were playing with us, popping up just out of sight or an instant after we had turned away.
The next night they took us on a night paddle just after it got dark. Rainer started out specifically looking for crocodiles and caimans, and managed to catch a small one. Don’t ask us how – he just reached into a bush, wrestled around for a minute and came back with this two-foot-long baby caiman in his hand! We had gotten separated from the other boat, and he handed the caiman to Kathy to hold for a few minutes while he paddled back in the direction where he thought they might be. (We never did catch up to them.) He was amazing at spotting wildlife at night, with a single small flashlight which he strapped to his forehead with an elastic band. And once he found something, he always had an interesting anecdote or factoid to share. One owl he found sitting on a nest, and he told us a local legend that struck similar chords to Snow White or Hansel & Gretel. There were two kids whose mother died, and when their father later remarried the new wife didn’t want them around. The father took them into the woods and left them. Later they returned as this owl which has a long sad call. He found a snake in the bushes, and a few very tiny frogs with huge voices, and perhaps most remarkable of all, he found our way back to the lodge again at the end of the tour! 🙂
The fourth day we turned around and began retracing our steps (?) back towards where we had launched, but Leslie and Matt continued on for a bit longer. As we said our goodbyes that morning, we didn’t really expect to see them again. We were now only two canoes heading back upstream, and the paddling was notably more difficult. Rainer was a master at taking short-cuts whenever the river made a sharp turn. This not only made the trip a little shorter, but also got us out of the current and provided opportunities to see different scenery. Often it felt like we were entering a tunnel or cave, built from foliage, but usually it would open back up again quickly. The other boat had a somewhat more difficult time following through the narrow passages that he discovered, however, since it was larger and couldn’t turn quite as nimbly. These shortcuts probably only exist for the few months of the rainy season, and become land during the dry season. While we were eating lunch on this day, it began to rain. The lodge we were in (a misnomer if a lodge implies actual walls 🙂 ) was not in good repair, and we dodged numerous leaks in the roof. It poured buckets! It slackened off just about the time we were ready to move on, but didn’t really stop for the rest of the day, and it also rained most of the next day, although not as hard. We were visiting during the rainy season, so we had actually been quite lucky to have a string of dry days at the beginning of our trip. We were all dripping wet when we stopped for the night and actually went to bed chilly. Our clothes were all still wet (although no longer dripping) in the morning.
The last day of the trip the rain had spent itself. We didn’t have far to go. At one point Rainer stopped and looked puzzled, as did the other guides, as if they’d lost their way. A tree had fallen across the river and completely blocked our way. It must have been 18″ in diameter and hard as nails, so hacking through it with their machetes was not a practical solution. Eventually they figured out a way to lift the bow of one dugout up on top of the log, shift it along in bursts, and drop it in the water on the other side. Things got a little easier when another party arrived and the extra people helped lift and tug the three heavy boats up and over the log. Shortly after that we stopped for lunch at a “wide spot in the road”, a small beachy area. Two or three other parties also stopped at this place with us, some just beginning and some concluding their tours, so there was lots of conversation. An archaic motorized dugout went by with a couple of park rangers. Apparently a guest had gotten ill and they were heading out to retrieve him more quickly. (No motors are allowed in the park except for the park rangers.) When we told them about the fallen log they turned around and headed back to their headquarters for a new game-plan; a short time later they passed us by again with a huge chainsaw and we didn’t see them again. Our friend Leslie had been feeling poorly when we went separate ways and we worried a bit that it might be her who they were evacuating.
We finished up our trip by paddling a very short distance to the launching place. We helped pack all of the gear back up into two of the motor-taxis that were waiting, and we spent a few minutes saying goodbye to the guides who had made our trip so memorable but whom we would never see again. It’s always a bit inconceivable to realize just how different our lives are from local people in these less developed countries. They live so close to the bone and have so few opportunities compared to us. It’s humbling. We had been tickled to see the guides (Rainer in particular) showing interest in our game of chess a couple of nights earlier. None of them knew how to play, but there were three or four pairs of eyes watching. We gave them a basic intro to the game, and then later gave our travel set to Rainer. Perhaps we have touched his life in a little way as he has touched ours.
Back in town we checked back into our hostel, hung our still-wet clothes out to dry and took a nap before dinner. We had a very early morning departure on our fast boat, so we didn’t stay out late. When we got on the boat we ran into our friends Matt and Leslie, and we asked them about their return trip. It turns out that it was Matt who had been sick, although it wasn’t dire. He was suffering the symptoms of a kidney stone and wanted to be somewhere away from the middle of nowhere if he was going to have to deal with that situation. The guides and rangers had responded quickly and effectively, whisked them back to town, and got them situated in a nicer hotel for the night.
The six of us enjoyed an afternoon together in Lagunas. We had a running joke out in the jungle about ordering a strawberry milkshake, and so we were tickled to find an ice cream shop that could make that very confection. 🙂 We were all heading towards Ecuador, but had slightly different schedules. We traveled together that day to Tarapoto (via Yurimaguas – none of this is straightforward!), and then made separate plans. We got tickets to the town nearest Chachapoyas (called Pedro Ruiz Gallo, for those who are playing along) and the others went on to the next stop. We were told to be sure that we go to the municipal bus station across from a particular cemetery – to distinguish it from the older municipal bus station across from a different cemetery! This is where our previous blog posting picked up, and we will now resume our “normal” chronological postings.